On the first episode of his new podcast “Deconstructed,” The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan sits down with former presidential candidate and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders to talk poverty, inequality, media bias, and the 2020 presidential election.
Sanders is fresh off a Facebook town hall with Sen. Elizabeth Warren and filmmaker Michael Moore that was viewed live by nearly 2 million people. He and Mehdi dig into the challenges facing the Democratic Party, how the left can connect with Trump voters, and whether Trump firing Mueller would be an impeachable offense (Bernie’s answer? Yes). Sanders ends with a warning to Democrats: “Anyone who thinks Trump cannot win a re-election is just not looking at reality. He can. That doesn’t mean he will. And I think there’s a good chance he could be stopped. But anyone who just sits back and says, ‘Hey, no problem, come 2020 Trump is gone’ — that would be a big mistake.”
Senator Bernie Sanders: Today there are thousands of people this country who can’t afford to go to a doctor. Today there’s a mom waking up who can’t afford affordable childcare for her little one. There are senior citizens a mile away from here who are trying to survive on $12,000 a year, social security. Does anyone give a shit about them? Does anyone cover them? The answer is no.
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome to Deconstructed, a new weekly show from The Intercept that’s all about presenting the facts, doing the deep-dive and perhaps above all else picking apart the B.S. and pure spin that passes for news and analysis these days. We’re here to have a brutally honest conversation about what’s happening in American politics and culture, both at home and abroad.
My name is Mehdi Hasan, and Washington D.C. has been my home for the past three years. Yeah, I’m an immigrant — a brown, Muslim journalist in Donald Trump’s America. I hit the Trump trifecta! Lucky me.
What I hope to bring to the show, though, from here in the nation’s capital is an outsider’s perspective — a different take on the discussions and debates that dominate the headlines here in the U.S. This won’t be a show that bows to soggy political consensus or lazy conventional wisdom. Some of you may know me already from my TV interviews, which can often get pretty heated.
MH: Would you kill the family of a terror suspect, yes or no?
TK: I would. I would have to see what the circumstances of that situation was.
MH: Are you kidding me?
TK: Three attorneys general said it wasn’t torture.
MH: Do you think it’s torture?
TK: Mehdi, you’re the nth person to ask me that.
MH: Doesn’t change the reality that you’re avoiding a very simple answer.
TK: I don’t know.
MH: But I’m really excited about joining the world of podcasting because as much as I love the heat, this show is going to be focused on shedding some light, having deeper conversations with people whose voices we really all need to hear more from, as well as giving my own take. Yeah — my own take.
This week, on this first show, my guest is the independent senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, who according to the polls is now the most popular politician in America. Today, he and I are going to talk about a pair of issues that are very unpopular in the mainstream media that many politicians choose to ignore, but issues that Bernie’s worked hard to bring to national attention: poverty and inequality.
President Lyndon B. Johnson: This administration, today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.
MH: Previous presidents declared war on poverty. These days, though, presidents both Republican and Democrat prefer to declare war on the poor. And they’re able to do it because the U.S. media gives them a free pass — it doesn’t cover this stuff.
For example, how many of you are aware of the fact that 41 million Americans live in poverty? 41 million. That nine million Americans have zero cash income? That a million and a half families in America — in America, the richest country in the history of the world — live on less than $2 a day.
But why would you know any of that? It’s not as if the media is telling you, informing you, reminding you of these facts. Not in an age of Russiagate or Trump tweets or Stormy Daniels. Who wants to talk about poverty and inequality when you could talk about porn star suing the president? I mean just remember the presidential debates.
Lester Holt: From Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, I’m Lester Holt.
Martha Raddatz: I’m Martha Raddatz.
Chris Wallace: I’m Chris Wallace.
MH: Three televised presidential debates in 2016, saw 70 questions asked of Clinton and Trump. Just one of them was on income inequality. None of them were on poverty.
Three debates, four moderators, 70 questions asked: zero on poverty. Zero on child poverty, despite the fact that the U.S. has one of the highest child poverty rates in the developed world. You might think that would be worth a comment or a question at a televised presidential debate.
And the number of poor in America is only going to go up in the coming years. The gap between the rich and poor is only going to increase because of the Trump tax plan.
President Donald J. Trump: The typical family of four earning $75,000 will see an income tax cut of more than $2,000. They are going to have $2,000, and that’s, in my opinion going to be less than the average, you’re going to have a lot more than that. [Audience clapping.]
MH: What he didn’t say is that most economists agree that the Trump tax plan gives the biggest tax cuts to corporations and to the top one percent, and that the gap between rich and poor will only go up over time as a result of those tax cuts.
Remember: Republicans are quite happy to do redistribution of wealth. You hear people say, “Oh, the right don’t believe in redistributing wealth.” Actually they do. They just want it to go in the other direction, from poor to rich, not from rich to poor. They’re basically the reverse Robin Hoods — to be fair though, Donald Trump himself loves poor people, or at least poorly educated people. He does! He says it himself.
DJT: He won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.
MH: Though he doesn’t love them enough to give them a top job in his cabinet.
DJT: In those particular positions, I just don’t want a poor person. Does that make sense? Does that make sense?
MH: But no one really wants to talk about any of this. Not the millionaire senators from both parties. Not the billionaire members of the Trump cabinet. Not the guests from corporate-funded think tanks who run their mouths day in, day out on corporate-owned cable channels.
Is it any wonder then that poverty and inequality don’t get a look in?
MH: Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is one of the few U.S. politicians who has been banging on about the importance of these issues for decades now — not years — decades. But recently he’s taken a different approach to trying to get his message across. He’s taken to social media to try and go beyond the narrow confines of the corporate media.
In January, he hosted a town hall online on healthcare. Over a million people watched live. On Monday, joined by Senator Elizabeth Warren and filmmaker Michael Moore, among others, he hosted a town hall on Facebook Live on the poverty, on the inequality, on the oligarchy that has come to define the United States in the early 21st century. More than 1.5 million people tuned in live.
BS: How often have you guys seen on television any discussion of poverty in America. You ever see it?
BS: Virtually not at all. 40 million people struggling. And, what I would say to our friends in the corporate media, start paying attention to the reality of how many people in our country are struggling economically every single day. And talk about that.
MH: That was Monday. On Wednesday, I went to see him in his offices on Capitol Hill.
MH: Bernie Sanders, thanks so much for joining me on Deconstructed. Great to have you on as our first guest, in this week of all weeks. You’ve been busy doing a town hall on Facebook Live with Elizabeth Warren, Michael Moore and others on Monday night, looking at inequality in the U.S., I think it got something, almost two million views?
BS: Well, who’s counting, but by the time it’s over with, it’ll be close to three million, I think.
MH: Fantastic. And you did one in January on healthcare —
BS: Medicare for all.
MH: — which got more than one million views. So let me start by asking you this: You’re not exactly a millennial yourself, you’ve described yourself as a technology Luddite, what made you want to start doing these town hall meetings on Facebook Live?
BS: I am a Luddite, but I am not dumb. And what I understand is: If you communicate effectively to the American people, we’re going to have to do it directly, we’re going to use the technologies that are out there.
So what we are doing selecting issues of extraordinary importance that the American people, issues which by and large are not covered in the corporate media. You got three people in America who own more wealth than the bottom half of the American society — three people. Is that moral? We have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country on Earth.
MH: One statistic I came across recently made my head spin, the Tyndall Report looked at nightly news broadcasts in 2016, election year, they found a mere 32 minutes was devoted over 2016 to substantive policy issues, most of those minutes were on foreign policy and terrorism, zero minutes on poverty, zero on inequality, zero on infrastructure, zero on climate change. Isn’t that a disgrace?
BS: Unbelievable. It’s unbelievable. And unless we understand that, you can’t understand why Donald Trump is president of the United States, you can’t understand why most people in America are giving up on the political process, we have the lowest voter turnout of any major country on Earth, so we have got to raise political consciousness in a way that the corporate media has never gone near.
MH: You mention Donald Trump. It’s not just issues that are kind of censored by omission, it’s people, and you’ve been one of those people in recent years who’s been kind of quote-unquote excluded. Again, another study found in 2015, Clinton, Hillary Clinton got six times as much coverage as you did, Donald Trump got 16 times as much coverage as you did; one study of ABC World News Tonight found that Trump got 81 minutes of coverage in 2015, and you got 20 seconds.
BS: Did we get 20 seconds?
BS: Must’ve been a mistake. 20 seconds!
MH: What did you say? What were the 20 seconds?
BS: Now, none of this shocks me. Look, none of this shocks me. I mean, right now you’ll have Stormy Daniels, whatever her name is, getting far more coverage than the fact that the middle class of this country has been declining for 40 years.
Look, there are a couple of reasons. Guess what? The corporate media year is owned large corporations. I know that’s a shocking statement.
MH: Hence the name!
BS: (laughs) But that is the reality. What is their function? Their function is to make money. And also their function is protect their own interests. You think the people who own the major corporations, whether it’s media or elsewhere, want to talk about income and wealth inequality, ant to talk about disastrous trade policies, want to talk about Wall Street? That’s not the issue they want to talk about. They want to keep us entertained, and, in fact, in many ways they want to deflect attention away from issues that might bring about real substantive changes in this country, politically and economically.
MH: One thing I’ve always thought the Democrats could do, the left could do in the U.S. — as a someone who used to come and visit here, and now lives here, I find fascinating — the Republicans have spent years pushing this line that the media has a liberal bias in this country, and I find liberals seem to be unwilling to push back hard against that narrative. Obviously, on cultural social issues, yes, there’s a liberal bias in kind of East Coast media, but on economic issues, on tax on corporations, on inequality — clearly not. It’s B.S. to say the media is left wing.
So do you think people on the left should be pushing back much harder against that narrative, here in Washington, D.C.?
BS: I do. I mean, yes, the answer to your question, the short answer is, is yes. The problem is when people talk about somebody being a liberal. I’m not a liberal — I’m a progressive. What’s your view on gay rights? What’s your view on racism? What’s your view on sexism? Oh, I’m a liberal.
But what is your view on whether or not we raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, whether we rebuild our infrastructure, whether we have progressive taxation? We have got redefine what is important in America. Today there are thousands of people this country who can’t afford to go to a doctor. Today there’s a mom waking up who can’t afford affordable childcare for her little one. There are senior citizens a mile from here who are trying to survive on $12,000 a year social security. Does anybody give a shit about them? Does anyone cover them? The answer is no.
MH: No, should be a huge scandal. And here’s a question just about tactics again. You’ve been very direct, very blunt — you are in this conversation right now, you are known for kind of dropping the jargon, you talk about the billionaire class, you talk about Medicare for all, not single-payer or technical terms. Do you think Democrats have been a bit weak when it comes to talking directly? People say, “Oh populist is a scary word in the Donald Trump era.”
BS: I think that’s the wrong question, because the question is: Who are the Democrats? Are there some who have the guts to take on the billionaire class? Yeah. Most don’t. So it’s not that they are, don’t know how to develop — they don’t believe it. All right?
In my view, obviously, and we’re working very hard for, is a transformation of the Democratic Party, to make it a party which stands with the working class, that is prepared to take on the billionaire class. That is not rhetoric. Guess what? There is a billionaire class. There is a Wall Street which puts huge amounts of money into politics. There is the Koch brothers, and we’ve got to deal with that reality.
MH: You gotta call it out, which is what you did do in the last election, and Hillary, following your lead, just started doing that, but I’m guessing you’re saying you need more people to do that.
BS: How many people, even, right now? Look, the Koch brothers today are more powerful than the Republican Party. You know what that means? Two people, two brothers, worth $90 billion are more powerful than the entire Republican Party, consisting of millions of people, or the Democratic Party.
MH: And have some very reactionary views.
BS: Very, very reactionary views. You seem that on television? Is anyone prepared to take on these people who are in many ways destroying American democracy?
MH: No, I haven’t seen them being grilled on “Meet the Press.” What about the American public? Because when you look at the polling it seems mixed. A lot of American voters want a higher minimum wage, they want healthcare for all but when you poll voters on redistribution and inequality and the gap, this is a capitalist society historically, Americans like the idea of the American Dream, meritocracy, much more than Europeans, say, they believe that people at the top, a lot of them got there through hard work and innovation. What do you do about the fact that a lot of Americans don’t have a kind of Scandinavian, egalitarian spirit? How do you get through to them?
BS: Look, this is my view: I go out around the country and I talk about the fact that the middle class is declining, that in the last 40 years there’s been a $13 trillion transfer of wealth from working families to the top one percent. And you know what? The vast majority of people are shaking their heads and saying, “This is unacceptable.” That’s why I run all over this country. Why we do these town meetings.
You have parts of this country where people have never heard anything other than Rush Limbaugh or Fox TV. All right? And we’ve got to get out in those areas.
MH: On that note, when you talk about going out and talking to Trump voters in particular who, a lot of people say have been betrayed by Trump’s economic promises, you look at the Trump tax cuts, were very unpopular, now some polls studies show that a narrow majority of Americans like them as their paychecks start reflecting some of the cuts in the short term. Would you advise Democrats going into the next election, in 2020, to promise repeal all those tax cuts?
BS: Not all the tax cuts, you don’t want to repeal — look, I don’t have any objection to tax cuts that benefit small business or the middle class. But I damn well will do everything that I can to see that we repeal tax breaks that go to large, profitable corporations, that go to Wall Street, that go to billionaires. And the vast majority of people understand that. I mean, what the Republicans always do is they give, you’re a working person, hey,, good news you got $100 tax break! You’re the Koch brothers? Oh, you’ve got $1 billion a year tax break. That’s what they do. And I think we can expose that. and I think the American people will understand that.
MH: Would you accept that a lot of the poverty debate on the left has focused on class, and a lot of people say, Well, race hasn’t had the same look when it comes to talking about poverty, historically. A big study out this week found that black boys raised in America, even in the wealthiest families, the best neighborhoods still earn less in adulthood than white boys with similar backgrounds. Race seems to trump class even now.
BS: I wouldn’t say that it trumps — both of them are enormously significant, and there is, I mean that is, I haven’t read that whole study, but I have read summaries of it, and that’s just astounding.
But I think, to my mind, what we’re focusing on, whether you are black or white or Latino, is the fact that we have 40 million people living in poverty, some in desperate poverty, that we have an administration now that wants to make a bad situation even worse by cutting back very substantially on food stamps, on other nutrition programs, on affordable housing, etc.
MH: A lot of political debate is if the Democrats were to retake Congress, if they were to retake the White House, what should be their priority when it comes to fighting and tackling some of these issues we’ve talked about? Should number one issue be climate change? Should number one issue be immigration? Should number one be healthcare? Where do you stand on that debate?
BS: If there is anything that we have learned from Trump is that a president and congressional leadership can be really bold. And you’ve got to give this to the Republicans. They have the courage to do what nobody in America wants except their billionaire campaign contributors.
I mean to come forward with a proposal that there were 32 million people off the health insurance — my god! Or to come up with a tax proposal with 83 percent of the benefits are to the top one percent at the end the 10 years? That’s incredible. What you need is an equal level of boldness on the part of Democratic leadership, except that boldness works for the working class, for the middle class, not just the one percent.
What does it mean? It means we are going to go forward with a Medicare for all, single-payer program. We are going to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. We are going to establish pay equity for women.
MH: Is there a priority when it comes to governing, I’m just wondering? What’s top of the list?
BS: Those are what’s on the list. You know, I think you can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time. What you want, this is what you want: Is to show that average person, oh, government can make a difference in my life. I’m now making more money. I now have good healthcare, where I didn’t have to before. I now have affordable housing, I now have a job. You’ve got to move, and you’ve got to move fast.
MH: You’re right, and you got knocked by your own fellow Democrats for coming up with, you know, debt-free tuition, etc. How are you going to pay for it? How are you going to do this? And nobody says, “How is Trump going to pay for his damn wall?”
MH: How is he going to pay for these tax cuts?
BS: Oh, these great Republicans, so concerned about the deficit, they just raised the deficit by $1.4 trillion over ten years.
MH: Yeah. A lot of the commentary around your election run last time around was: Can a socialist run for president in the United States of America? Do you think the success of your run has kind of detoxified the s-word in the U.S.?
BS: Yes. Absolutely. It did detoxify it, but we haven’t brought forth the discussion of what democratic socialism means.
I am glad that there has been a greater emphasis on some of the real achievements that Scandinavia has accomplished, which in the past have been completely — it’s not, you know, Finland as you may know was recently selected, I don’t know exactly how they did it, as quote-unquote the happiest country in the world.
MH: Also has the best education system.
BS: But that’s one of the reasons why! So it’s not complicated to know that if you live in Finland, affordable health care is not a problem, your kid’s going to get a great education, you don’t have to pay for it through college, childcare is virtually free. You know what? That takes a lot of stress.
MH: But nobody knows that in the U.S. That’s the problem.
BS: Now, as a result of your podcast, where millions of people are going to be hearing this, that’s what we got. We what we have to say —
MH: They got Nancy Pelosi on CNN saying, “We’re capitalists. Sorry.”
If you were to run again for president in 2020, and many people want you to, do you think the media would give you much more coverage and attention this time around given how big a figure you’ve become? You mentioned, you know, the CNNs of this world reaching out to you because of the success of your run.
BS: Yes, I suspect so, but I think it would not all be very positive. I mean, there would be an effort to try to, tear us apart. There’s no question about it. Look: What I stand for is a threat to Wall Street, it’s a threat to corporate media, it’s a threat to the corporate world. These guys do not go easily into the sunset, you know, and there would be tremendous resistance and it would certainly take its form in the media as well.
MH: And I know you don’t like answering questions like, “Are you going to run for president?” But we’re a year away from where you have to decide, it’s about 12 months away, 13 months away. I think you declared April 2015 last time. So we’re about a year away. Are you thinking about it?
BS: The honest answer I am very worried, and working very hard on 2018. If we can get a Democratic house or a Democratic Senate, we can go a long way to stopping the Trump agenda. And that’s my immediate concern.
And second of all, the media likes to talk about campaigns and individuals. I like to talk about issues. And what we’re focused on right now is how we can prevent the United States from getting into never-ending wars, how we could deal with all the domestic issues that we talk about.
MH: And you mentioned stopping the Trump agenda. A lot of Democrats, liberals across the border assume the Bob Mueller, the special counsel in the Russian investigations, is to do this big takedown of Trump, he’s going to get impeached and he’s going to be gone. I’m not so sure, personally. I can see a two-term Trump presidency, as much as that horrifies me. Does that worry you too? What do you think the chances are?
BS: Your point is absolutely right on. Anyone who thinks that Trump cannot win a reelection is just not looking at reality. He can! That doesn’t mean he will. And I think there’s a good chance he can be stopped, but anyone who just sits back and says, “Hey, no problem! Come 2020, Trump is gone.” That would be a big mistake.
MH: You think there’s a good chance of a second Trump term?
BS: I’m not saying there is a good chance, but I’m saying — look, on Election Day, 2016, this is what I thought: I thought, I think Hillary Clinton is going to win but I surely will not be surprised if Trump wins. That was my feeling. That’s how I feel right now. I think there is a good chance the Trump can be defeated, but anyone who thinks it is a slam-dunk is absolutely mistaken.
MH: One last question, this is a big story in the news this week, there’s been a lot of talk about President Trump getting ready to fire the special counsel in the Russia investigation, Bob Mueller. Republican Senator Jeff Flake said this week that he would vote for impeachment if that were to happen. Would you as well? Would that be grounds for impeachment.
BS: Yes. I think that that’s a point in which — you know, I’ve been very reluctant to talk about impeachment until we have all of the information coming in from the investigation. But that would be a major, major, major obstruction of justice. That would be an impeachable offense, in my view.
MH: Bernie Sanders, thanks so much for coming on Deconstructed.
BS: Hey, thank you very much, and very good luck with your program.
MH: I appreciate it.
MH: That’s our show!
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept and is distributed by Panoply.
Our producer is Zach Young, Leital Molad is our executive producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshore. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor-in-chief.
And I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every Friday. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed.
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Thanks so much. See you next week.